Important People in the Political Struggle for Aboriginal Rights
1929 - 1967
by Peter Forrest This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002
Robert Tudawali (c.1929-1967), actor and advocate of Aboriginal rights, was born about 1929 on Melville Island, Northern Territory, son of Tiwi parents. He later said of his childhood: 'I hunted, fought, sang like all my people. No clothes. No worries. The country I ran in was my own—every rock, tree meant something to me'. In the late 1930s he went to Darwin by canoe with his parents and took the name Bobby Wilson (using the surname of his father's employer). Despite only a rudimentary education at the Native Affairs Branch school at Kahlin compound, he acquired a rich English vocabulary, and learned to speak in the beautifully modulated tones for which he was often mocked as 'Gentleman Bobbie'.
Late in 1941 Tudawali became an orderly in a Royal Australian Air Force medical aid-post. After the first two Japanese air-raids on Darwin on 19 February 1942, he was among a group of Aborigines who were moved to Mataranka. Employed in an army store and then in a mechanical workshop, he learned to drive. Towards the end of the war he was transferred back to Darwin, where he worked as a waiter at Larrakeyah Barracks. For him to gain this 'inside' position, one of the highest to which a 'full-blood' Aborigine could then aspire, his style and self-assurance must have been evident.
Various menial jobs followed. Tudawali married Peggy, a Wadyigini (Wogait) woman, in 1948; they lived at the Bagot Native Settlement, Darwin. He was a good boxer and an outstanding Australian Rules football player. An opponent, Ted Egan, recalled that he once unsuccessfully tried to get past Tudawali. As Egan picked himself up from the tackle, Tudawali said encouragingly, 'Well played, old chap'.
In 1952 Charles Chauvel and his wife Elsa chose Tudawali for the leading male role in Jedda (1955), a full-length colour motion picture filmed in the Territory and in Sydney. He became Marbuck, an outlawed traditional Aborigine who challenged the White world when he stole the part-Aboriginal heroine. Tudawali was a sensation and the film a success. Its gloomy conclusion, that tensions created by the Aboriginal transition from the traditional to the contemporary could be resolved only by violent death, was to be mirrored by Tudawali's own life.
Back in Darwin, Tudawali was allocated a house in a White suburb. After a few months, however, he moved back to Bagot at his own request. He worked as a groundsman at Government House, where his affable and direct (but never 'cheeky') manner won forgiveness for his indifferent work performance, until he told the administrator, 'My education did not teach me how to rake leaves. My education has taught me how to drink, smoke, and mix with white women'. In March 1956 national newspapers claimed that he was destitute and suffering from tuberculosis. The minister for territories (Sir) Paul Hasluck came under heavy fire in the Commonwealth parliament for the alleged failure of the Territory's Welfare Branch to protect Tudawali's interests. Although he received further roles in an undistinguished film, Dust in the Sun (1958), and in the early television series 'Whiplash', he drifted in and out of hospital, where he was treated for tuberculosis, and in and out of gaol for repeated offences against liquor laws. In 1963 the Welfare Branch banished him to Melville Island for nine months, and his health improved, but he regressed on his return to Darwin.
Tudawali's life gained new purpose when he was elected vice-president (1966) of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights. He joined a handful of Darwin people who were quick to extend tangible and moral support to the Aboriginal stockmen who had walked off Wave Hill cattle station. Advocating equality and self-determination for his people, he planned to travel south on a fund-raising and community education tour early in 1967. He was too ill to make the trip, however, and had to be readmitted to hospital.
His first marriage having disintegrated, Tudawali married a woman named Nancy. He began drinking even more heavily and regularly came under adverse notice by the authorities. In July 1967 he was involved in a drinking session at Bagot. He claimed that an argument broke out because he refused to surrender his 11-year-old daughter Christine in marriage, and that some men either threw him on a fire or lit a fire around him while he lay drunk and ill on the ground. Survived by his wife, and by the two daughters of his first marriage, he died of severe burns and tuberculosis on 26 July that year in Darwin Hospital and was buried in Darwin cemetery. A film of his life, Tudawali, was made in 1987.